So I saw John Carter. Twice. Yes, you read that right. Twice. I loved the film. Disney, the studio behind the movie, however, has recently announced that it is planning to take a $200 million write-off this quarter on its anticipated losses. You see, John Carter has flopped. Not simply flopped, but crashed and burned like one of the awesome CGI airships that plied the Martian skies in the movie. John Carter has reportedly cost $250 million to make and another $100 million to advertise (not that it did much good) and the film’s worldwide earnings of $182 million in its first ten days of release are nowhere near the break-even mark.
When did we get to the point where $182 million dollars in ticket sales is a flop? It is a deceptively simple question. When Hollywood started making $350 million movies, that’s when. I thought John Carter looked great, and the computer images were spectacular. I wrote a review of it for The Armchair Critic website (check it out) a couple of weeks ago. I suppose very few readers took my advice and went to see it.
This got me to thinking about whether there is rhyme or reason to the success or failure of science fiction or fantasy (SFF) movies that are based on an already existing property, such as a book (John Carter) or comic or television series. I decided to go through an exhaustive list (okay, seven) SFF movies and how they fared at the box office. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001-2003) came first to mind. It was expensive – $281 million – and garnered $2.9 billion worldwide. Chris Roberts’ listless Wing Commander (1999), based upon the game of the same name, cost $30 million and had a paltry box office take of less than $12 million. Joss Whedon’s ambitious and humorous Serenity (2005) cost $39 million and had a box office of just about that. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998) was awful, costing $130 million to put onscreen, and took in a completely undeserved $379 million.
Stephen Norrington’s dull The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) cost $78 million to film but made over $179 million. Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007), an almost totally ahistorical version of the Battle of Thermopylae (the Persians did not toss hand grenades!) cost $65 million to make and took in an astounding $456 million. Zach Snyder’s Watchmen (2007) cost $130 million to film and took in $185 million.
Is it possible to draw any conclusions from this list? First, it is a good idea to base a movie on a book by Tolkien. That being said, The Lord of the Rings films were excellent, and even with the superb source material, there is no way the films would have made so much money if they had been bad, or even mediocre. Wing Commander was based on a videogame and had a poor script. It deserved every last dollar it did not get.
300 (not strictly a fantasy film but for all intents and purposes one) was based upon a 1998 comic book series by Frank Miller. I have never read it and don’t plan to, so I can’t give an opinion on its quality. The movie was extremely successful, but I don’t think it had much to do with the comic series. How many people had ever read it? I had never heard of it before the movie appeared. Harry Potter and the Something of Something Else it was not. The movie did have incredible battle scenes, and perhaps appealed to the inner fanboy in moviegoers not ordinarily interested in such SFF films. Gladiator had earlier enjoyed great success in the swords and sandals genre, and 300 mined much the same vein.
Watchmen was a great film, faithful (perhaps slavishly so) to the classic comic on which it was it was based. It did well in the theaters, but was no blockbuster. After all, Watchmen was, as a comic, a literary look by its author, Alan Moore, at the meaning of the superhero. Many people loved the Watchmen series, but how many regular moviegoers really love the Watchmen as a group of superhero characters, the way many adore Batman or Spiderman, and will go see a movie featuring them? I don’t think very many, and this may have been why, after the initial rush of fanboys saw the film, its box office draw declined. It still made a profit, but was no huge success.
Godzilla on the other hand, was lousily written, and still made cartloads of money. This is the hardest to explain. With such great starting material to draw upon, Emmerich removed everything good about the monster Godzilla and left the bad. Nevertheless it was a great box office success, and perhaps this is an example of a film succeeding in spite of itself.
As for fan favorite Serenity – oh, my heart goes out to it. I was a big fan of the television show Firefly, and in 2005, I could not wait to see the movie based upon it. This movie, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies the notion that interest in some things may be a mile deep but only an inch wide. Once the fans of the show had seen the movie, there were not many other diehards out there willing to plunk down cash on what was, in effect, a movie that condensed four or five never-made seasons into a feature film. Remember too that the tv show was canceled midway through its first season. Serenity was fortunate to nearly break even. It made me sad to think of all the stories that Joss Whedon could have told but did not get the chance to tell.
John Carter was well-written. It was beautifully filmed. It was not, however, based upon a well-known property. Even though the first story appeared in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom cycle of stories has been more of a cult hit than something with strong crossover appeal. That doesn’t mean it could not have done better, perhaps with a smarter marketing campaign. But the major point would seem to be that the best way to ensure that a movie is a financial success is to control costs. Based upon the rumors (which we can’t be certain about) John Carter‘s first time live-action director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) needed expensive reshoots that drove up the cost of the film. A quarter-billion dollars is a lot of money, and I have to wonder, why a Disney studio executive did not shout “Enough!” after the first hundred-fifty million? There are not enough fanboys in the world to guarantee a big hit if the film does not connect with mainstream moviegoers.